May lobbies business on Brexit deal amid split in party

Downing Street insists draft agreement covers Gibraltar as Spain demands veto

British prime minister Theresa May says that any proposed challenge to her leadership risks delaying the Brexit negotiations. Video: Reuters


Theresa May sought the support of business for the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement on Monday as her Eurosceptic critics insisted that they were close to triggering a confidence vote in her leadership.

Conservative Brexiteers have struggled to reach the target of 48 letters from MPs calling for a confidence vote as former party leader Michael Howard became the latest Eurosceptic to warn against such a move, which he described as an “unnecessary distraction”.

Mrs May told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in London that she was determined to deliver a Brexit deal based on the withdrawal agreement agreed last week and a political declaration about the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

“That is my focus. My job is to get the best deal. I know what that deal needs to do. Deliver on the referendum vote by giving us control of our borders, laws and money. Get the UK out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Set us on course for a prosperous future where livelihoods are protected, our security is maintained, and our union secured,” she said.

Mrs May said the withdrawal agreement was now settled but that negotiations would continue this week on the political declaration, an outline of which was published last week. The draft withdrawal agreement says that Britain would be able to extend the post-Brexit transition period rather than trigger the backstop but it does not specify a date.

The backstop is a temporary arrangement to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland if no alternative solution in found during Brexit negotiations.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier suggested this week that the cut-off date could be December 2022 but Mrs May said on Monday that the transition must end before the next British general election, which is scheduled for May 2022.

“From my point of view, I think it is important in delivering for the British people that we are out of the implementation period before the next general election,” she said.

Mrs May is expected to travel to Brussels this week to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of Sunday’s European Council meeting but no date has been agreed. Downing Street on Monday insisted that the withdrawal agreement would apply to Gibraltar, despite Spain’s demand for a veto over any future trade deal with Britain over the issue.

“The draft withdrawal agreement agreed last week covers Gibraltar. The PM has been clear that we will not exclude Gibraltar and the other overseas territories and the crown dependencies from our negotiations on the future relationship. We will get a deal that works for the whole UK family,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

The CBI’s director general Carolyn Fairbairn welcomed the draft withdrawal agreement as “significantly better than stepping off that cliff” of a no-deal Brexit but she criticised the prime minister’s proposal for an immigration system that will give no preferential treatment to EU nationals.

“Government may be listening to business when it comes to immigration, but they still aren’t hearing. Free movement of people is ending and a new immigration system represents a seismic shift – one that firms across the country need time to adapt to. A false choice between high and low skilled workers would deny businesses, from house builders to healthcare providers, the vital skills they need to succeed. The best way to build public confidence is through a migration system based on contribution, not numbers,” she said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the conference that his party’s Brexit plan is similar to that favoured by the CBI, which has also called for Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU. 

“We agree with the CBI too on the need for a deal that guarantees a strong single market relationship. There is a better deal to be had and it’s not too late to achieve it – if the prime minister has the courage to change course, or stand aside and let Labour take the reins,” he said.

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